FINE ARTS REVIEW
The Visual Art of John Cage
HAYWARD GALLERY, UNTIL SEPT 18 hy do I have to introduce John Cage? His name should be a salverbalanced card of intro duction into the high esteem of any lover of the arts, the equivalent of Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp and Mark Rothko. And yet music never made it quite as far in the 20th century, at least in classical terms, and the world should sit back and ask itself why. In his book Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko but Don’t Get Stockhausen, David Stubbs notes that the jarring polyphony of Béla Bartók and György Ligeti was used by Stanley Kubrick to illustrate the high horror of the closing scenes of The Shining and that gagaku, the atonal school of Japanese music, was used by the ad men to convey a migraine in headache commercials. His point is that, unlike modern visual art, modern classical music can be highly distress ing through its all-absorbing, immersive presence. We can shut our eyes, but we can’t close our ears.
Cage was a polymath who also embraced the fields of music criticism, printmaking and painting. His most identifiable technique was to incorporate the use of chance, or aleatoric devices, in the composition of his music. He composed his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra in 1950 using, for the first time, dice to determine the outcome of his work. Later he would programme early computers to throw dice for him. The New Yorker critic Alex Ross, in his book The Rest is Noise, paints Cage as a skilled publicist who “browsed through the literature of Zen Buddhism which supplied him with an all-accepting, ‘whatever happens will happen’ approach.” His supposed “whatever happens will happen” approach is contradicted by his visual work, which I saw surrounded by his London admirers in Waterloo recently. One particularly delineated bow of thread, neat against a mottled page, brought to mind Ted Hughes’s description of Marianne Moore’s conversation: “...a needle / Unresting – darning incessantly / Chain-mail with crewel-work flowers / Birds and fish of the reef / In phosphor-bronze wire”. It is this tension between the flesh of creation and Cage’s meanness of execution that can lead us to re-examine Cage’s allegedly “unassailable” reputation, through the prism of his drawings.
Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912, but in the 1940s he moved to New York. Throughout his life he associated with and drew inspiration from visual artists like Rothko, Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg. He would often cross the street to avoid a drunken Pollock, but would draw a more fruitful association with Rauschenberg. The pop artist’s plain white canvases so impressed Cage in 1951 that he decided to create a musical equivalent, 4’33”. This was four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, performed first by pianist David Tudor, who walked to a piano, opened the lid and sat immobile except to open and close the lid at the start and end of each movement. There is a work similar to Rauschenberg’s in the current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery: On The Surface (number 22). When I visited the gallery was teeming with visitors, all visibly Cage fans eager for a taste of the legend’s work.
Another difference between 20th century visual art and 20th-century classical music highlighted in Stubbs’s book is the former’s ability to subsist as “an Original” (for example. we might speak of a painting as being “a Hockney Original”). Cage died in 1992, and since then no ad originem performance of his music is of course possible. So we are left with the drawings.
Cage’s colours are much more successful than his thin, mean lines. One piece, New River Watercolors, Series I, has the flavour of washedout earth sediment in its chicory background and algae trails, with a revivifying marine swoop bringing us back up. It’s then squared off with a light red ring.
The overall feeling of the exhibition is spare and minimalist, with dense black threads making us think of the hundreds of layers in Cage’s Williams Mix, his pioneering experi ment with spliced acoustic tape that combined “city”, “country” and “small” sounds among many others. He uses pastels in square collages, but even these soft colours have an edge of metal to them, and a splinter of the theory that underpinned his every move.
Interviewed by the American art historian Irving Sandler, Cage spoke of how he felt about the intensity and excitement of Jackson Pollock’s work. “Oh,” he said, “none of those aspects interested me. I wanted to change my way of seeing, not my way of feeling. I’m perfectly happy about my feelings... I don’t want to disturb my feelings, and above all, I don’t want someone else to disturb my feelings.” It is this thought, this stickler’s adherence to “chaotic” theory, the dice and Zen, that led Cage to leave undisturbed the biggest chaos of all: his emotional subconscious. This would have been the greatest madness of all, one he wanted to leave undisturbed, while the computer threw dice up above.